“My best happens really so rarely,” Junot Diaz recently told Sam Anderson in a Q&A in this weekend’s NYTimes Magazine. It’s a great, honest interview, where Anderson requested the Pulitzer-prize winning author to bring along “a few artifacts of writerly inspiration.”
“As Diaz pulled out one document after another, I got the sense that,” Anderson writes, “if only he could have carried a big-enough folder–maybe one the size of a couple of continents–he would have packed in just about everything he has ever heard or read…”
I was thinking about what Diaz hasn’t published about two weeks ago, when Diaz addressed students at Columbia College Chicago(I brought my class). I’d been assigned to review his latest 200-page collection, This is How You Lose Her, for New City and though I’d been denied interview access during his doubleheader in Chicago, I was too chicken shit–and too conflicted about my dual role as teacher and reviewer–to ask this question at his Q&A: what do you do with all the shit you don’t publish?
“It took me sixteen years to write,” Diaz admitted to students at Columbia College Chicago when he visited recently as part of a thirty-city whirlwind tour. “Any art worth its name requires you to be fundamentally lost for a very long time.”
That stretch between these two collections was anything but idle, and Yunior was not in hiding. Diaz’s Pulitzer-prize winning debut novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” published in 2007, featured Oscar, an overweight geek virgin hopelessly in love. Though he is the antithesis of Yunior, of the Dominican male archetype, guess who’s telling this heroic tale of love and heartbreak, of Oscar and the Dominican Republic? Yunior de Las Casas, the same Yunior from “Drown” and “This is How You Lose Her.”
His stories are published in the top fiction markets–The New Yorker, Glimmer Train–but there’s only been twenty or so in the 16 years since he broke through with Drown. So what happens to all the rest? He doesn’t just write when it suits him–denying the Tayloresque urgings of creative production that he faulted as the problem with today’s American art machine. He kills the rest. Or sits on it. Either way, according to the Times piece, he fights with his material and his internal critic, which Anderson baits Diaz into admitting, “It’s my dad.”
The piece sheds awesome insights into one of the most celebrated writers of his generation, whose writerly struggles are as universal as Yunior’s quest to be better. Just as Diaz is heartened by the output of Michael Chabon and Edwidge Danticat, his despair over the quality of his output is as inspiring as is the quality of his stories to so many writers.